Retooling the School: Vocational Education and the Origins of Federal Funding for Public Education

Kroupa, George, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Spreen, Carol Anne, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

This dissertation argues that the beginnings of federal funding for local public schooling are rooted in the popular vocational education reform movement, which broke across the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an initiative that expressed discontent with the academic status quo of the American high school. To solve perceived educational, social, industrial, agricultural, and economic problems, vocational promoters from education, business, manufacturing, labor, and politics obtained federal dollars to introduce and maintain pragmatic courses in the curriculum. This work explores how and why the 1917 Smith-Hughes Vocational Education Act overcame generations of opposition to federal involvement in K-12 public schools and inaugurated the expanded fiscal and regulatory role of the federal government in local education that has become so prevalent. It demonstrates that the vocational education initiative changed the core purpose of schooling for young people by pinning teaching and learning to the goal of creating human capital to benefit the American economy and national security, a concept that appealed to many politicians, educators, and leaders in business and labor. It argues that the elements of the successful vocational education movement—broad criticism of public education’s shortcomings, the perception that the United States is vulnerable to the threat of foreign economic and political competition, and proposals for repairing the nation’s school system through curricular reform attached to high-stakes testing—were echoed in subsequent school reform initiatives, including the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA). This dissertation concludes by contending that the major traits characteristic of the successful early vocational education reform movement are found in modern school reform initiatives.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
education history, vocational education, public school reform
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